Sunday, April 6, 2014

Play Store Developer Issues and How To Fix Them, Google.

Just when I thought I was recovering from loosing my Play Store developer account, I saw this on the Google+

That's Jeppe Foldager, aka Black Bear Blanc, aka BBB; one of the most respected themer on Android. When I had bought my first Android phone (Galaxy Nexus) and had joined XDA-Developers forum, BBB, Pooley, Slymobi - works of these people inspired me to get involved in Android theming. I found my passion. I made one theme after another, one widget skin after another, used uccw widgets to entirely change the look of phones. And within a year, I had 50+ apps in the play store. I liked spending time on creating and maintaining those. The thing I liked most about development was the interaction with the community. Communication with other developers and the users. Yes, the money was good too. But more than that, I took pride in being an Android developer. More than my day job, making apps made me feel like I'm accomplishing something in my life. And then Google yanked it away. Just like they did with Jeppe.

Fact is, yes, we both might have (unknowingly) violated some play store developer policy. But Google doesn't help us understand those. This is how the entire thing goes down.

App publishing and suspension
  1. When you join the developer program, you are presented with the developer policy, which tells you what you can and can't do w.r.t. your apps. It has bullet points and slightly vague descriptions.
  2. You go through the policies, think you understood them, make some apps, publish them on play store, get some/many downloads/reviews/ratings.
  3. When Google decides that any of your apps is violating any policy, it straight-away suspends your app and sends you a mail telling you that your app is suspended for violating so n so policy. For example, I had received 2-3 app suspensions, which were attributed to "Impersonation or Deceptive Behavior". The mail doesn't say anything beyond that. You are left wondering which part of your app violated that policy. (Unless of course you did that knowingly, in which case, shame on you).
  4. Second line in that mail, below the reason, says "You may revise and upload a policy compliant version of your application as a new package name. Before uploading any new applications, please review the Developer Distribution Agreement and Content Policy." i.e. Google is telling you to forget that you had that app in the play store and forfeit all the ratings/reviews that app had garnered. And to hell with the people who had bought that app. It is telling you to upload a new version of the app with a new package name. And, oh; don't forget to make sure it is policy compliant. But how do I do that if I don't know what violated the policy in the first place?
  5. Anyway, there's also an appeal process. It says "We will only reinstate applications if an error was made, and a re-review finds that your application does not violate the developer terms." i.e. if Google thinks your app did violate any policy (which it of course does), they won't give you a chance to fix it. You submit your app reinstatement appeal in case you feel Google made a mistake or request them to lift the suspension so that you can correct the mistake you understood. But in either case, Google doesn't give a fuck; unless you are a big-shot name. For others, that appeals form is a black hole. When you submit your petition there, you get an automated receipt acknowledgement mail and after days or weeks, get another automated mail saying "We have reviewed your appeal and will not be reinstating your application."
  6. So, even if you understand later what violated the policy, there's no way to fix it other than uploading new version of the app and starting from scratch. You lost the reviews, rating, good will. And those who had bought the app got screwed over.
  7. There's no telephone support. There's no way to communicate with the play store team other than the above mentioned appeals form if you are a developer. Unless of course you are Koush famous and know people in the team. Then those people help you get everything back even if you were knowingly flouting a rule for over 2 years.
  8. Anyway, once you have a few app suspensions under your belt, one fine day, Google sends you an account termination mail; letting you know that they have crushed your dreams and passion. No amount of logical argument, promises, begging works. Once your account is gone, it's gone. And you can't create a new account either; even if you use new email id, new bank account, new IP; Google somehow deduces it is you and suspends that account too. You are banned for life.
  9. And they suspend your Google Wallet account too. But that's a different ballgame altogether. At least that has telephonic support, Google products forum support and you can actually talk to a human being.

TL;DR - The way Google handles app suspensions is broken. The developer support in general is broken and it needs fixing asap. Developers will keep repeating mistakes unless Google fixes it.

Fixing Google Play Developer Program
Here are the things that Google should do.
  1. Google should review an app before accepting it in the play store. Apple does it, why can't Google? When the developer uploads an app via the developer console, Google should run some scans to make sure that it is policy compliant. Something like the bouncer thingy Google has for detecting malware / threats etc. This will save both Google and the developer headache in future. Plus you won't have a whole lot of angry customer in your hand.
  2. If something is detected to be in violation later on, send a warning mail to the developer instead of suspending it immediately; without giving the developer a chance to fix it. No, "upload a new policy compliant version" isn't a good option. Unless it is security risk, give them a few days' time to fix the mistake in the original app itself.
  3. Also, try to pin point what part of the app violated the said policy. Apps name? Logo? Description? Keyword? Code? UI? Something else? More often than not, pointing to the name of the policy-part doesn't help and we are left wondering how in the hell the app violated that. Developers are left guessing and might repeat same mistake in future.
  4. When a developer submits an appeal, automated bot replies are fine to start with. But if the developer is not getting a satisfactory answer and is replying to those mails asking for further details/assistance, get a human involved. Bots can't know/understand everything. Let the developer communicate with a real human being who can see logic.
  5. On that same note, start a telephone line for support. Google wallet has it, app buyers have it; why not developers? It is pathetic that developers, who bring users to Android, have no form of solid support from Google. Google takes 30% commission from our earnings and still doesn't support us.

Take a stand. Make them take notice.
But will Google listen to these suggestions? In recent years, Google seems to have abandoned their "Do no evil" motto and running with a "My way or the highway" approach. We, the developers need to take a stand now. We can't let Google walk all over us like this. It happened to us today, it will happen to you tomorrow. It's high time that we make Google listen. I have an idea if you want to take part in it. #DevsTakeAStand

  • If you are a developer, unpublish all your apps from play store for one day, or one week.
  • Announce your stand. Announce the reason you unpublished your apps on your website/community/page.
  • If you are a user, Chat, email or call Google asking about the app you had bought that got suspended.
  • Tweet / Share / +1 this article on all your social networks. Use hashtag #DevsTakeAStand

I hope other tech blogs / websites pick up this news and run it. Hope Google sees this and makes some improvements in the way they treat their developers. And no other developer has to see their dreams getting crushed.
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